MARC sign at Halethorpe station has long been off the track

Baltimore Sun

The problem: A scrolling message sign in a MARC station parking lot has been displaying test patterns for more than four years.

The backstory: Signs with scrolling messages can be found in banks and other businesses trying to share information with customers.

But the message sign in the parking lot at the MARC station in Halethorpe hasn't told passengers any information they cared to know in at least four years, according to Jay Sherman, a Federal Hill resident who commutes to Washington from there.

Watchdog visited the location and was pleased to learn by reading the demonstration program running on the sign that it possesses many functions for displaying text, including "roll down" and "roll up."

However, it was clear that the Maryland Transit Administration, which maintains the Halethorpe station, has not been taking advantage of the sign's features to communicate with passengers. Perhaps someone lost the owner's manual.

This is unfortunately coupled with what Sherman described as an impossible-to-understand public address system.

"It is amusing, and if the system in general worked better, it would be even more amusing," said Sherman, who has navigated many international transportation systems as part of his job with the World Wildlife Fund.

Sherman said he recognizes that it's not a critical problem, but "it does amaze me to see things like this in my country, knowing in general how wealthy and how efficient we are. There are some places in the world where a glitch like this would be impossible."

The sign has a lot of potential, Sherman said. It could be used to inform passengers of late trains or holiday schedule changes, he said.

"This, to me, is some combination of an opportunity lost and sort of bad public relations," he said. "You figure if they can't get the sign to work over a couple of years, what should my expectations be in general?"

MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said the Halethorpe sign has worked, but concedes that "the operation of the outdated Halethorpe PA/LED has been sporadic."

Cheron Wicker, another spokeswoman at the MTA, said the sign is scheduled to be replaced, along with the public address system, by late August. In fact, the entire MARC public address system is to be replaced by spring 2011. Federal stimulus dollars will pay for the $6.5 million project.

Who can fix this: John Hovatter, director, MARC and commuter bus operations, Maryland Transit Administration. 410-454-7265.

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